Legal? It still doesn’t make it right

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The $915,732 in clean election funds allocated to Barbara Merrill’s campaign for Maine governor in 2006 was well spent. She fought a spirited race, resonated with citizens and earned more than one-fifth of their votes.

Late in the campaign, as a hard-charging Merrill blitzkrieged the airwaves with paid announcements (including a 30-minute made-for-TV special), the independent from Appleton seemed poised to upset the apple carts of Democratic incumbent Gov. John Baldacci and Republican candidate, Chandler Woodcock.

Merrill made it hard to argue, as she has told the Maine Ethics Commission, that by any objective measure, “the Merrill campaign spent its money very effectively.”

Whether Merrill spent the money ethically is a different discussion.

State ethicists have blown a wary whistle about Merrill’s employing her husband’s firm, Mountain Top Productions, during the campaign. His firm received more than $200,000 in taxpayer funds, with half to Phil Merrill as salary for his professional services, while he served as the campaign’s assistant treasurer.

An ethics commission auditor has said it’s contrary to good practices for the financial official of a political campaign to oversee payments to their own company in such a lofty amount.

The Merrills, in defense, said lawmakers addressed and specifically allowed this practice, and employing Phil Merrill, a veteran political strategist and former state senator, was done at discount because he was “uniquely available” to the campaign.

Yet these qualifications of Phil Merrill as a campaign whiz, dating back 30 years in Maine politics, only makes this situation more problematic, as someone of such reputed savvy should have realized the questionable appearance of his firm’s employment and handled its disclosure differently.

The threshold of legality shouldn’t supersede considerations of appearing ethical. This situation does raise questions about proper uses of clean election funds, and the transparency Maine voters expect in its spending.

Other candidates, when faced with similar scenarios, realized the appearance of impropriety. David Emery, for example, who lost the 2006 GOP gubernatorial nomination to Woodcock, inquired in 2005 about whether payments from his campaign to his private surveying firm would be ethically kosher.

“Mr. Emery’s inquiry acknowledged the sensitivity of a candidates using public funds to reimburse his own company for rendering campaign services,” wrote Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the ethics commission.

Public confidence in clean elections is critical; the program must appear uncorrupted, and the notion a candidate can use taxpayer funds to employ a spouse with a six-figure salary can besmirch its image within the electorate.

While the Merrill campaign did nothing wrong legally, these payments ethically should have been fully disclosed from the start. The Maine Ethics Commission is right to raise these questions, and should work to ensure similar scenarios into the future are forced to the light, instead of left in the dark.

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